Will Congress Do Something About Missing, Murdered Native Women?

Congressional legislation introduced last week aims to improve the federal response to the crisis of missing and murdered Native women.

Sen. Heidi Heitkamp (D-ND) on October 5 introduced Savanna’s Act, named in honor of 22-year-old Savanna LaFontaine-Greywind of the Spirit Lake and Turtle Mountain Chippewa Nations in North Dakota. LaFontaine-Greywind vanished in August while eight months pregnant. Her body was found eight days later in the Red River.

On some reservations, Native women and girls are murdered at a rate more than ten times the national average. Eighty-four percent of Native women have experienced violence in their lifetime, according to a press release from Heitkamp. She spoke about the need to protect Native women in a Thursday speech on the floor of the U.S. Senate.

“There are countless more stories like Savanna’s … that we will never know. It’s time for Congress to recognize this epidemic and take action to prevent these stories and find out just how many stories there really are,” she said. “It’s time to give voice to these voiceless women. It’s time to bring their perpetrators to justice and give a voice to the families who are struggling even today, sometimes decades later, to understand how this can happen in America.”

North Dakota recorded 125 cases of missing Native American women and girls in 2016, according to the National Crime Information Center. With unreported cases and no official data collection, Heitkamp claims the real number is likely even higher.

“Tribal law enforcement agencies need better access to federal databases and criminal justice systems to solve crimes and develop prevention strategies. Law enforcement agencies across the board need to collect and keep better data on missing and murdered Native women and children, and we need to provide more federal resources to attack the problem head-on,” she said in a statement.

Savanna’s Act tries to rectify this. The bill calls for better collection of data, tribal access to federal crime databases, more collaboration between the federal government and the tribes, a standardized response protocol for missing or murdered Native people, and an annual report to Congress.

The bill comes on the heels of the Department of Justice’s announcement that its Office on Violence Against Women (OVW) has awarded some $56 million to groups responding to “the crimes of domestic violence, sexual assault, dating violence, stalking and sex trafficking in Indian country.”

The DOJ fact sheet acknowledged that Native communities “face disproportionate rates of violence and victimization and often encounter significant obstacles to culturally relevant services.” And while violence is declining in most communities across the country, the rate of violence in Indian country remains “extremely high,” the release stated.

“A number of studies have identified the high rates of sexual violence Native women and girls experience and the barriers that prevent law enforcement agencies and victim service providers from identifying and responding appropriately to Native victims. These grants will help address those problems,” said Nadine M. Neufville, acting director of OVW.

Earlier this year, Heitkamp introduced a bipartisan bill to create an AMBER Alert system in Indian country. She also created a Commission on Native Children to help combat poverty, substance abuse, domestic violence, and other chronic issues Native children face.

Native advocates commended the new legislation introduced by Heitkamp.

Savanna’s Act is “an important step towards interrupting the crisis of invisibility of murdered and missing Native women and girls in law enforcement practices,” Judith LeBlanc, director of the Native Organizers Alliance, told Rewire.

Caroline LaPorte, senior Native affairs policy advisor for StrongHearts Native Helpline, a resource launched in February for Native survivors of domestic violence, told Rewire that gender-based violence has long been used as a tool of genocide against Native people, but there is still no data to measure it or record how it happens.

“The result is that Native women die without names and their tribal nations grieve without answers,” she said in an email. Savanna’s Act “will help to narrow that information gap by providing detrimental access for tribes to federal crime information databases [such as the National Crime Information Center], and it does so by requiring that the federal government consults with tribes to determine how best to improve that access.”

Dave Flute, chair of the United Tribes of North Dakota (UTND) board, said in a statement, “Heitkamp has long been an advocate for Native women, children, and families, and we appreciate her taking action to prevent the kind of tragedies that have too often stricken our communities. We’re encouraged that this bill includes several of the recommendations made by UTND, and we fully support and encourage its passage.”

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